61 pages 2 hours read

T.C. Boyle

The Tortilla Curtain

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1995, The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle tells the story of two couples living parallel lives in Southern California: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, affluent white Americans with a home in the upper-middle-class subdivision of Arroyo Blanco; and Cándido and América Rincón, undocumented immigrants from Mexico living in a makeshift camp at the bottom of the canyon. Rotating among the perspectives of the four protagonists, the novel explores the inequality inherent in the United States and the many contradictions of the American Dream, alongside themes of racism, xenophobia, and the exploitation of nature. The novel won the Prix Médicis Étranger prize for best foreign novel in 1997. Author of 19 novels and more than 150 short stories, Boyle received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Best Novel of the Year in 1988 for his book The World’s End. He has also received the O. Henry Award, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and has been shortlisted for the National Book Award.

This guide references the Penguin Books Kindle edition of the novel.

Content Warning: The Tortilla Curtain depicts racism and xenophobia, including offensive language, which is reflected in this guide. The novel and guide also refer to rape and sexual assault. 

Plot Summary

The Tortilla Curtain begins with a car accident. Delaney Mossbacher, a self-proclaimed “liberal humanist” who lives in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Arroyo Blanco, hits Cándido Rincón, an undocumented Mexican immigrant. Cándido is injured but alive. He refuses a ride to the hospital, fearing deportation, and Delaney gives him $20 to alleviate his conscience. After the accident, Cándido returns to his camp in the canyon and is delirious for two days. As their food supplies run low, his young, pregnant wife América tries to slip away to look for work at the labor exchange. Cándido disapproves of her going, but América insists that they have no other options: Cándido can barely stand, let alone work. 

Delaney lives with his wife Kyra, stepson Jordan, and his wife’s two dogs and cat. He takes care of most of the domestic duties while Kyra works as a real estate agent, and in the afternoons, he writes a nature column about the flora and fauna of Southern California. One morning, not long after the accident, there is a yelp from the yard as Delaney prepares breakfast for Jordan. He sees a coyote leaping over the fence with one of Kyra’s dogs in its mouth. Delaney is furious because his neighbors often leave food out for the wildlife, and he raises the topic at the next community meeting. Unfortunately, the community is focused on discussing the construction of a gate and has no interest in Delaney’s coyotes. 

América does not find work at the labor exchange for the first five days, and the couple starts to run out of food. During the day, Cándido is left alone in the canyon, in pain and lost in memories of his past. At the labor exchange, América has to defend herself against unwanted advances from a man called José Navidad, whom she is instinctually afraid of and who later rapes her. However, she finally gets a job scrubbing mold off Buddha statues.

Meanwhile, in Arroyo Blanco, the community has recently installed a gate to protect against crime. Now, residents want to build a wall around the community. Delaney is outraged by his neighbors’ exclusionary politics; however, after another coyote kills his second dog and he feels threatened by a strange car driving through the neighborhood, he starts to reconsider. After a hike, Delaney returns to find his car has been stolen. He immediately sees Cándido’s face in his mind, and his “racist resentment” begins to grow.

One of Kyra’s listings is a spectacular 20-room mansion owned by the Da Ros widow, who wants to sell the property after her husband’s suicide. One evening, she finds two men walking out of the woods, José Navidad and a companion. She warns the men that they are trespassing, and they leave without incident, but Kyra feels a threat she cannot shake radiating from the man. Kyra is alarmed when she sees a large congregation of Latino men in the supermarket parking lot that hosts the labor exchange. She makes some phone calls and “clean[s] up” the street corner.

Back in the ravine, América suffers from a burning pain when she urinates after José Navidad’s assault. As Cándido heals, he can finally get intermittent work, and the couple starts to save for an apartment. However, the closing of the labor exchange halts their plans. Cándido decides to hike the 10 miles to Canoga Park to try his luck there. In Canoga Park, Cándido learns that there is a recession and too many people for too few jobs. When a man approaches Cándido, offering a cheap place for the night, he goes away to talk with him, leaving América on the curb. When he finally reappears, he has been robbed of all their savings. After this tragedy, América falls into a state of despair and refuses to speak to Cándido. 

Thanksgiving approaches, and Cándido prepares for the festivity by splurging on a beer for the night. At the supermarket, the men in front of him receive a free turkey with their purchase, and they gift the bird to Cándido. He rushes down the canyon with the bird, and he and América set to work roasting it. However, the wind catches their little campfire and sets the dry trees of the canyon aflame. Panicked, they race up the canyon side as the flames chase them. 

The citizens of Arroyo Blanco are forced to evacuate and watch the fire from the safety of their cars atop the canyon. As Delaney watches, José Navidad and his friend walk out of the canyon. He remembers seeing the men “hiking” on a canyon trail, so he accuses them of setting the fire. The men are arrested, then the wind changes, and the residents of Arroyo Blanco are allowed to return home. Delaney feels momentarily ashamed by his outburst, but when graffiti appears on Arroyo Blanco’s newly constructed wall, Delaney becomes obsessed with catching the culprit. He installs cameras on the wall, which he monitors closely, and is shocked to capture a picture of Cándido’s face. 

After escaping the fire, América goes into labor. Frantic, Cándido finds a shed along Arroyo Blanco’s wall where América delivers the baby, a girl she calls Socorro. Cándido climbs over the wall to get food and various supplies he needs to build a hut in the canyon. When América has recovered, she demands that Cándido buy her a bus ticket back to Mexico. He breaks the news that the fire has incinerated their savings and sets out to look for work again. América starts to notice something strange about her daughter’s eyes and fears that Socorro is blind because of the symptoms she experienced after being raped. 

Coming back from looking for work, Cándido is surprised by Delaney swerving off the road and leaping out of his car to shout at him. Another car hits Delaney’s, and Cándido makes a run for it. Delaney walks home in the rain as his car is towed, following Cándido’s footsteps up the canyon road. At Arroyo Blanco’s wall, he sees that there is fresh graffiti. His cameras have been tripped, and he takes them home to develop the photos. To his shock, the culprit is not Cándido but Jack Jr., his neighbor’s son. However, Delaney thinks that Cándido is surely guilty of something and sets out to search for him, armed with a gun.

Returning to his shack, Cándido tells América of the run-in with Delaney. She confesses her fears about the baby, but at that moment, Delaney’s face appears in the doorway. As the characters stare at one another in surprise, the mountain moves around them. The rain has created a mudslide, and the four of them slide helplessly down the canyon side toward the stream that is now a raging river. Cándido loses hold of América in the water, but she pulls him out as he surfaces. She is sobbing; Socorro has been lost in the flood. Cándido feels numb at this news, but as he sees Delaney’s hand in the water, he reaches out to grab it.

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